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Space Fender Benders, Where Do The Satellites Go?

Space Trash Is Going To Be A Problem

CK Kimball
August 20 2021

In March of 2021, the United States Space Force's 18th Space Control Squadron (18SPCS), the space control unit located at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California that provides 24/7 support to the space surveillance network (SSN), reported on Twitter the breakup of Chinese military satellite Yunhai 1-02. It was bizarre as this wasn’t just a malfunction or the result of routine wear and tear. The satellite was only two years old. It seemed we had a space mystery on our hands.

It was only until last week that we discovered the answer to this mystery. On August 14th astrophysicist and satellite tracker Jonathan McDowell, while checking updates via the Space-Track.org catalog, found a note reading ‘object 48078 1996-051Q’ had 'collided with satellite’. “This is a new kind of comment entry — haven't seen such a comment for any other satellites before," McDowell tweeted on Saturday. Further research yielded that ‘object 48078’ was a piece of the Zenit-2 rocket that had launched Russia's Tselina-2 spy satellite in September 1996.

Illustration of a rocket exploding in space. ESA

Essentially, the two-year-old Chinese satellite Yunhai 1-02 was wrecked by the remains of a twenty-five-year-old Russian rocket. Though the satellite is still functional (or at least still sending a detectable signal) it received a huge wack that sent pieces flying every which way. To put it in scientific terms: it was a total disaster. 

Space traffic collisions like these used to be rare, but the event may become more common in the future. Thirty-seven debris objects have been identified since the dust-up with more expected to be orbiting around the planet waiting for their next victim. And there will be a next victim.

Some junk in space. Shutterstock 

"Collisions are proportional to the square of the number of things in orbit," says McDowell. As of the end of April 2021, 850 satellites have been launched into orbit, adding to the over 2000 satellites already in orbit. That’s a lot of opportunity for space fender benders. In just a few years, the nightmare situation of ‘Kessler syndrome’, a cascading series of collisions, could be a reality. An event resulting in the entirety of Earth’s orbit becoming so cluttered with debris, satellites are rendered useless, and if that’s the case, not even a lawsuit from Bezos will be able to get a crewed mission into space.  

While the current space junk issue isn’t full Kessler syndrome bad, it’s possible that the Yunhai 1-02 wack job is the beginning of a cascade. But there are efforts to prevent the night sky from becoming a smear. Much in the way organizations can Adopt-a-Highway, various space agencies around the world can Adopt-an-Atmosphere by implementing better designs and issuing guidelines to cut back on debris.

However, the best method for space trash reduction is to simply go up and get it. The problem is that this is costly, but at least SpaceX has super-duper sworn that one of the tasks of the Starship system COULD BE collecting and de-orbiting space junk.

Space trash is happening and, like Earth, it’s a man-made issue that’s going to take a man-made solution. But only if that solution, like with everything else, is affordable.

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